Deployment of Saudi military elements to the largest oil field in Syria, al-Omar, with an excuse of protecting the Saudi oil experts in the field last week, and news regarding the expropriation of a Turkish-crewed ship in the Mediterranean by the coast guard forces loyal to eastern Libya-based warlord Khalifa Haftar redrew attention to the Eastern Mediterranean policy of the UAE-Saudi axis.
The UAE-Saudi axis, traditionally in favor of the status-quo, has developed its recent policy in the Eastern Mediterranean just after the signing of the Turkey-Libya Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agreement, which can be interpreted as an attempt to transfer its geopolitical rivalry with Turkey to the Eastern Mediterranean region.
News regarding the Turkish and Israeli authorities being “ready for collaboration” on the construction of a pipeline transporting natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, and Egypt's state-owned natural gas firm taking part in a 7-billion cubic meters liquefied natural gas auction organized by BOTAS -- Turkey's state-owned, natural gas pipelines and trading company -- for the 2020-2023 period add to the odds that the issue is related to natural gas resources.
Egypt and Israel not having a choice but to collaborate with Turkey to be able to transport a considerable amount of their natural gas reserves to Europe has the potential of weakening the ties of the UAE-Saudi axis with these countries.
- Turkey's energy security vision
Russia's frequent disruptions of the gas flow to European countries due to the post-2006 natural gas crisis which broke out between Europe and Russia made energy security a foreign policy issue of utmost significance for developed European industries. European countries focused on finding alternative energy resources and diversifying their transport routes. As of now, Russia single-handedly provides one-third of the natural gas consumed in Europe, while that number rises to values over 50% in most Eastern European countries. Turkey remains an important alternative for reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and diversification of the continent's energy transport routes. Turkey, located between the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries supplying half of the energy consumed in the world and European countries consuming one-third of it, plays a key role in the economic and energy security of countries whose finances largely depend on energy exports.
Turkey’s vision of “becoming a central power in energy” has surfaced many times as a foreign policy issue in the past 20 years. Turkey’s vision brought many successes to the table, including the recent successes in the building of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline carrying Azeri oil to international markets, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) transporting the natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to Europe and the TurkStream pipeline opened last month transporting natural gas from Russia to Europe. In addition, through both diplomatic and military means, Turkey was able to maintain a high profile in the region by preventing the creation of a corridor in northern Syria, and realization of regional and global projects looking to sabotage Turkey’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean regarding the natural gas reserves and the creation of a corridor in northern Syria.
The signing of the maritime deal between the Turkish government and the UN-recognized government of Libya towards the end of November was a crucial diplomatic success, responding to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum’s (EMGF) efforts for taking Turkey out of the equation in the region. The EMGF was created by Israel, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Southern Cyprus with hopes of excluding Turkey from getting its share from the natural gas resources. With this agreement, Turkey secured its rights on the current and to-be-discovered natural gas reserves in the region, and also consolidated its key position in the transportation of the energy resources to Europe. Although the Greece-Southern Cyprus-Israel trio announced that early January they will sign an agreement for the underwater transportation of the Mediterranean natural gas to Europe, the reconciliation between Turkey and Libya renders impossible the construction of such a pipeline, even an underwater one.
- Weakening impact of UAE-Saudi axis on international energy politics
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, largely dependent on energy exports, face serious economic problems due to the recent developments in the global energy market. These developments are way beyond being merely basic economic concerns, but constitute national security issue for both countries, given the rent-seeking nature of their economies.
Oil prices trading at very low levels for the last 5 years, countries like Russia and the U.S. have raised their production levels to become the most important actors in the global energy market and these changing energy trends weakened the UAE-Saudi axis. The 2020 Saudi budget alone is sufficient to summarize these developments. According to the budget announced in December, the country's total budget in the financial year of 2020 is 1 trillion and 20 billion Saudi riyals ($272 billion). This number is behind last year’s budget of 1 trillion and 48 billion riyals ($279.5 billion). In addition, the expected revenues for 2020 add up to 833 billion riyals ($222.1 billion), while this number was a lot higher in 2018 with a total of 917 billion riyals ($244.5 billion). The projected yearly government deficits rose nearly 50% since 2018, from $35 billion to $50 billion, which is be one of the largest deficits in Saudi Arabia’s history. These huge budget deficits concurrent with the Yemen war, continue to be sources of hardship for the Saudi regime.
The Eastern Mediterranean has a strategic location, with its current and to-be-discovered energy reserves, and its position transporting other energy reserves in the Middle East to consumer centers. Since the start of the Arab Spring, the UAE-Saudi axis spent a great deal of effort to strengthen its position in this strategic region. The Yemen intervention is closely related to the Eastern Mediterranean policy of the UAE-Saudi axis. This is why the creation of a northern Syria band, isolating Turkey from the Arab/Muslim world and the transportation project planning to transfer Middle Eastern resources to Europe through a route excluding Turkey, got a lot of support from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Syria policy of the UAE-Saudi axis was developed around distancing Syria from their rivals such as Turkey and Iran, and if that’s not possible, keeping these countries away from the Saudi influence areas, including the Red Sea and Gulf. Recent initiatives such as the agreement on the Idlib demilitarization zone, operations of Olive Branch, Euphrates Shield and Peace Spring have made the Syria crisis more manageable for Turkey. This gave Turkish foreign policy more room for maneuver after years of intense focus on the Syrian crisis, and the Libya deal is one of the most significant consequences of that. In fact, the UAE-Saudi axis has been frequently expressing its intent to deploy military units to Syria since 2015. The last attempt of the Saudis after the establishment of the safe zone by Turkey, through military and diplomatic initiatives, is particularly remarkable time-wise and reflects the Saudi’s efforts for aggravating Syrian-crisis borne problems in Turkey as well as preventing Turkish initiatives.
The widespread use of electric vehicles has ended an era where petroleum was the main source of energy for transportation and revolutionized the global energy market, bringing forward alternative sources of energy such as natural gas. This global trend has weakened the hand of Saudi Arabia, the second biggest actor after Venezuela in the petroleum market with 266 billion barrels of oil reserves, and brought attention to its regional rivals such as Qatar and Iran which have considerable amounts of natural gas reserves. Considering these changes in the global energy market, Turkey’s close relations with Qatar and Iran, its unmatched geopolitical potential, and critical roles it can play in the transportation of energy reserves in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, might end up marginalizing the Saudis in the global energy market.
- Collaboration with Turkey necessary for natural gas transports
Turkey being the most appropriate and secure route for the transportation of natural gas to Europe requires countries like Egypt and Israel -- which have considerable amounts of natural gas reserves -- to collaborate with Turkey. This has the potential to weaken the ties between the UAE-Saudi axis and its two most important allies -- Egypt and Israel -- because the signing of pipeline agreements can create long-lasting periods of collaboration and (co)dependency for the signature countries. The diplomatic and military initiatives developed by Turkey might end up obliterating the influence of the UAE-Saudi axis on regional matters and global energy markets, if the natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean are transferred to European countries through pipelines already in-service, such as the Trans-Anatolian and TurkStream.
Taking a closer look at the diplomatic and military roles that the UAE-Saudi axis wants to play in crises in countries, such as Syria and Libya, that have no fundamental priority for their regional policies, it’s clear that the axis is following exclusionist policies against Turkey, attempting to prevent it from becoming a central figure in global energy dynamics. The UAE-Saudi axis, deploying military units in northern Syria and supporting rebellious general Haftar’s efforts for bringing down the legitimate UN-recognized government of Libya can be interpreted as a response to the Turkey-Libya deal and Operation Peace Spring, and also as an attempt to force Turkey to direct all of its attention to the security of its southern borders, making the Syrian crisis act as a limitation of the Turkish foreign policy.
By Necmettin Acar
(The writer is an academic, and the chair of International Relations department at Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey)